Comic book podcasting has become more and more popular over the years, but House To Astonish remains the one to beat. Hosted by Paul O’Brien (hey, that name’s familiar) and Al Kennedy, the fortnightly show is a funny, insightful look at the current top comic books and the world around them. As part of their never-ending mission to interview the world (not true: they don’t typically run interviews), Al came down to Thought Bubble this year to mingle with the stars.
In the process, he put himself in my crosshairs, and we sat on a cannon (true) to talk about how House To Astonish was started, what it’s about… and how Mark Waid was integral to the whole thing starting out.
Steve: How’re you finding Thought Bubble so far?
Al Kennedy: I got thrown out the bar last night at 3am, which is always a good way to start a convention. They moved us out the bar and into the foyer, and then out the foyer and into the street.
Steve: ….So! You were both bloggers before you started House to Astonish. You did 100 Days of Comics, and Paul writes The X-Axis. How did you get started in comics commentary?
Al: I decided to set myself a writing challenge, where I’d write about something every day. I figured that comics would be something I could easily find things to talk about, so every day I did an essay about something to do with them. It was more an exercise in writing discipline than me having 100 burning things to say about comics, but I really enjoyed doing it as well.
Once it wrapped up, Paul and I had known each other for many many years.We were sat in the pub one night and talking about online comics journalism, and thought “well why don’t we do one of these new-fangled podcasts?” Back when we started it was a far less packed field, and that’s where the thing came from.
Steve: Who else was around?
Al: iFanboy… and John Siuntres was already doing his thing… a few others!
Steve: Do you view it podcasting as a community, or does it feel like you’re all in competition?
Al: I think that the field is broad enough and people are doing enough different things to allow for different voices to be heard. I know that there are some groups of podcasters, where if you listen to one, you’re likely to listen to all of them. I know we share an audience with Graeme and Jeff at Wait, What?, for example. There’s certainly some crossover with Evie and Aaron of Awesomed By Comics, as well as Chris and Euge/Chris and Matt at War Rocket Ajax – although I think their audience is larger than ours!
Steve: Many other podcasters focus on reviews and interviews, but House to Astonish starts with a news roundup. Was that always the idea? That the podcast would focus on criticism and commentary?
Al: Yes. We decided to steer away from interviews for the most part… although… I am here to do some interviews… because the thing about doing interviews is that you have a very high bar to clear in John Siuntres. He’s absolutely brilliant, and if you go into podcasting with an aim to do interviews, you’d better be able to keep up with him.
Originally we were going to do a round-up of what people are saying on blogs and message boards as well as an editorial-style polemic we’d deliver each episode. But instead it turned out that we went on tangents and talked nonsense. So we start with news stuff, three reviews, and then some mucking around at the end.
Steve: Do you think of yourself as a journalist? Does podcasting sit alongside journalistic sites like, say, Robot 6, or Comics Reporter?
Al: I don’t see us as journalists. I think we’re commentators, which is a different thing. In terms of comics journalism, there are a few really terrific sites which cover the majority of aspects of the comics industry, and beyond that I don’t think we have that much to offer in terms of actual reportage. We talk about the news and hopefully share some, but we’re both reviewers – Paul obviously has been doing the X-Axis for 15 years, and I’ve done my own bits and pieces through Ninth Art and 100 Days. But we don’t report or investigate, and get scoops and news, so I don’t think it’s journalism.
I like to think that especially in light of legal issues – Paul and I are both lawyers in our day jobs – we try to look into stories and work out what is actually going on, and what the ramifications are. We do go beyond the press releases where we can. History is written by the winners, so when you see a legal verdict reporte, there’s often a framing around it which backs whoever won the case. Which is fine, but you need to be able to look beyond it as well. I think just regurgitating news is not helpful to people. If they just wanted to see press releases, they can just go online and find them. I think we offer a discursive aspect beyond mere repetition, and do it with good humour and a bit of insight
Steve: I think that’s the case with your review, as well. Unlike perhaps some other podcasts, you don’t just review the same 3 comics every episode – you’re going beyond the standard choices and picking new comics to review. Is that a conscious decision – to review things other people don’t?
Al: Absolutely. We each order a lot of first issues, which we will not follow up on. We don’t read many issue 2’s. We go through a lot of first issues and starts of new story arcs, new creator teams etc, because we like to keep it varied and bring different things to people’s attention. I know Paul and I are also both Marvel kids at heart, but we do try to make sure at least one of the three books isn’t a big two title, or is non-superhero.
We try also not to have two books by the same publisher, as well. Sometimes it’s unavoidable – we could easily, this week, do three Marvel Now books. This week there’s a new issue #1 for Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men Legacy, All New X-Men, but we’ll only do one of them, and focus elsewhere for the other two. Colder was also out this week, and that was excellent. 47 Ronin was excellent.
There are a lot of options, and I think it does a disservice when you review the same three books every time.
Steve: Do you ever think to go further and do digital work, or webcomics?
Al: We have done it to some extent with Bandette from Monkeybrain, which was terrific. We tend to have quite a well-trodden remit in that we usually pick three print books. People have asked us to review webcomics and serials, but I think it requires a different approach. Somebody asked if we would review Penny Arcade – but it’s a different format. It’s a three-panel strip, and it’s not the same as reviewing a print issue.
Steve: Do you find with reviewing that it can sometimes be hard, if you know the creators involved? How do you go about reviewing a comic if you know the writer or artist?
Al: I was actually talking about this a few weeks back. I don’t know if you saw this, but there was a furore about games journalists being too close to studios and publicists.
Because we only do three books an episode and we’re not in America, doing interviews, we tend to not have as much contact with creators as some other have. I am good friends with Kieron Gillen, but we’ve been friends since before he was a comics writer, and we tend not to review stuff by people we know. Sometimes we do, but we would never review it because they are our friend and we want to give them some publicity. If we do interview someone we know we make sure we’re upfront about it, and call them a friend of the podcast.
I think you have to be upfront, declare the interest you might have, and then be as objective as you can.
Steve: You finish with a feature called The Official Handbook to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, in which you scour the old Marvel handbooks for an obscure character, and then walk listeners through their history, which tends to be really really weird. How did you come up with that idea?
Al: ….this is all lost in the mists of time…
We knew we wanted to do something to round the podcast out which was funny, and we’re both nerds for the official handbook – I have every one that’s been published. We decided it would be fun to look through the handbooks and come up with characters who are silly and ridiculous, and wonder how they could be rehabilitated I think Wizard magazine used to have a feature similar, called Mort of the Month, where they’d pick an old character and slag them off. What we try to do is take that further and wonder if there’s anything we can do to rehabilitate them.
Speaking of the mists of time — I found recently a bit of paper which had all the names we came up with when first trying to name the podcast, and I think I’ll put them up for the 100th episode.
Steve: How did you decide on House to Astonish?
Al: House to Astonish itself came from the Amalgam Comics. In the wake of Marvel vs DC they did a series where two characters would be smooshed into one body – like Darkclaw, who was a mix of Wolverine and Batman. He fought a cross between joker and sabretooth called Hyena. There were some great ones, and they obviously enjoyed doing it – they took Ice Cream Soldier from Easy Company, mixed him with Izzy Cohen from Howling Commandos, and came up with Ice Cream Cone.
Apparently a load of titles were pitched, and Mark Waid pitched House to Astonish, which would mix House of Mystery and Tales to Astonish. I think I read that in 1997 and thought it’d be a fun name.
Steve: How do you think the podcast has developed over the years you’ve done it?
Al: We haven’t changed anything! We’re basically creatures of habit.
We’re better at it, and more confident, I suppose. There were more pregnant pauses and talking rubbish when we were starting out- not that the rubbish quotient has gone down, but we talk better rubbish now. One thing we tried to always do was keep it short – one hour is about as long as you’d want to go.
Joining Comics Should Be Good has been an honour, and it’s terrific to be a bit more well-known and respected than when we started. Our impressions are… better?
I think we’re part of a community now. We’re part of a firmament. we’ve been around so long we’re probably not going away now. In that we’re like Action Comics – once you hit a certain number, you’re here to stay.
Many thanks to Al for his time. And as luck would have it, a new episode of House to Astonish was released only a few hours ago! You can find it at the website, and find Al on Twitter @housetoastonish. Paul is also on Twitter, at @ifdestroyed